Thomas Kuhn's Paradigm Theory Essay

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Thomas Kuhn (1922-1996) was an American scientist, historian and philosopher who wrote a controversial book in 1962 called The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn was born in Cincinnati, Ohio and from an early age expressed interest in science, particularly physics; obtaining his BS degree in physics from Harvard in 1943. He stayed at Harvard for his MS and PhD, and credits the period of the late 1940s in helping him develop his views on the history and philosophy of science. He taught at Berkeley until 1964, and then moved to Princeton from 1964 to 1979, moving to MIT until 1991. Kuhn died in 1996 from lung cancer, but left a long tradition of scientific articles, books and student input (Fuller, 2000)

This book introduced the term "paradigm shift" and made several claims surrounding the manner in which we understand scientific knowledge, process that knowledge, and use that knowledge to come up with new ideas and approaches to problems. The overall thesis of the book is that periodically, science undergoes paradigm shifts that are punctuated in structure. Instead of science progressing in a linear fashion -- e.g. one small step leading to an improvement and other step, etc., the paradigm shifts are like "tipping points" that expand knowledge in ways that are non-geometric. These shifts also open up new approaches to ways of looking at problems, of understanding issues, and viewing concepts and proofs (scientific truth) in new and rather remarkable ways. In essence, then, we cannot know scientific truth at any given moment because it is continually evolving -- and it cannot be established only through objective (quantitative) criteria, but instead by a generalized consensus of the scientific community. Over time, this consensus changes based on theory, application, and certainly in the global world of enhanced communication, more rapidly and with a larger audience. Looking at it from a micro-viewpoint, there are often competing paradigms within the scientific community -- arguments through journals, experiments to validate competing views; which means that we cannot be objective in our view of science, but must account for a number of qualitative and subjective perspectives that may be proven correct or incorrect over time. Science is then continually in flux -- or crisis, and it is this crisis that propels science forward (Hairston, 1982).

The transition from a paradigm in crisis to a new one from which a new tradition of normal science can emerge is far from a cumulative process, one achieved by an articulation or extension of the old paradigm. Rather it is a reconstruction of the field from new fundamentals, a reconstruction that changes some of the fields' most elementary theoretical generalizations as well as man of its paradigm methods and applications. During the transition period there will be a large but never complete overlap between the problems that can be solved by the old and by the new paradigm. But there will also be a decisive difference…. when the transition is complete, the profession will have changed its view of the field, its methods and its goals (Kuhn, 2012).

Science is essentially based on observation and experimentation. All research begins with some type of question -- and thus research is the process of answers questions. Scientific research, though, is a systematic process in methodology -- the collection and analyzation of that information to increase understandings of that study. Regardless of the discipline then, the idea of research requires a hypothesis based on a theoretical what if, a specific plan to investigate that theory, and a way to investigate that can be extrapolated to others based on repetition of the experiment or rigid enough data to use in like situations (Leedy & Ormrod, 2009). There are different methods of experimentation; generally numerically based (quantitative), verbally based (qualitative), or a mixed method approach. Each discipline tends to focus on a particular example; and there have been ongoing battles between qualitative and quantitative research (witness the continual nature of paradigm shifts), but all research needs a question to answer or a hypothesis to prove or disprove. This overall method is called the scientific method and is a systematic and step-by-step process that is formal, objective, and structured to the point where it can be duplicated and provides new truths. The idea of the paradigm shift and the evolution of scientific knowledge means that we are continually looking for new truths based on what has been discovered, discussed and new inventions or new ways of looking at scientific problems (McCaig & Dahlberg, 2010).

Taken further, in science there are a number of terms -- concept, theory, or paradigm. All these terms describe the qualities of knowledge. The terms are sometimes used interchangeably, but are really better explained as being differentiated in scope and slightly different meanings; much like evil and nefarious -- both mean essentially the same thing, but in slightly divergent ways. Concepts, for instance, describe more abstract ideas and are the least specific of the three terms. Generally they withstand scientific testing, but because science changes so rapidly, concepts morph and evolve as scientific knowledge improves. Theories are collections of explanations about specific ideas that must be proven or disproven. They may be educated guesses and often contain a broader range of concepts within their model (e.g. "Big Bang" theory). Paradigms are maps or encapsulations of theories, methods of research or concepts -- a combination of theory and concept. Paradigms are relative and are belief systems that evolve and may be generally accepted principles during one time period, then as theory changes or is disproven, becomes divergent. Paradigms guide and inform hypotheses and theories based on knowledge and discipline. As research is continually performed, concepts change and are augmented to become more specific in nature. As scientific knowledge continues to grow and change; in other words as theories are proven, reshaped or discarded, the grander paradigm "shifts" to become a new set of scientific "isms" (Stump, 2001)

In some ways, this is very much akin to constructivist theory in education. This is a theory of knowledge and meaning by way of using experimentation and observation as opposed to simply lecture. Learners, which we can extrapolate to all individuals, have unique backgrounds (past knowledge, culture, etc.), and are thus complex and multidimensional in their sense of the world. The motivation for learning and change (evolving knowledge) is the idea that we learn a concept through experience, and by level. Lev Vygotsky, a Soviet educational psychologist, said that learners are challenged in "proximity" to their current level and a bit beyond. This theory of "proximal development" is a hands-on example of Kuhn's theory in action. By continually experiencing challenging education opportunities we grow intellectually and take the ideas of past knowledge, current experimentation, to form a synthesis of something new; which then starts the process over again and results in the growth of knowledge (Liu, C., et al., 2005). In addition, this theory has been corroborated by Benjamin Bloom, who developed a theory of knowledge that is relevant to the ideas of Kuhn and the differences between rote knowledge and an ever higher pyramid of scientific inquiry. Briefly, Bloom epitomizes Kuhn by using taxonomy of learning, which we can envision as a triangle with many different tiers. The bottom level, or the most basic type of learning, is simply rote knowledge or facts. As learners move up the pyramid, they move into higher forms of thinking and learning that allow them to master subjects to a greater degree. Once facts (remembering) is done, the learning then moves to understanding the concept, the applying the concept to real situations, then analysing what happened, then evaluating the potential outcomes, to the final stage of taking all the learning and creating something new. The idea is that learners should move up the pyramid in order to become masters of a topic -- not simply work at the bottom stage of remembering, and thus push the paradigm of scientific knowledge forward (Bloom's Taxonomy of Learning Domains, 2011).

It seems quite reasonable that Kunh's philosophy surrounding the structure of paradigm shifts is accurate enough in that it not only follows and acts as a theorietical basis for the philosophy of learning, but also that it aligns with other theories that support a more drastic change of knowledge over time. For instance, evolution as a concept means "change over time." We know that scientific knowledge changes over time based on experimentation and continous reinventing of proof of various hypotheses. Some of these ideas move forward, some are discredited, and some simply ammended. One scientific "proof" to buttress Kuhn's argument is called puntuated equilibrium. This is a theory developed by Niles Eldrege and Stephen J. Gould that tells us that evolution is not gradual and smooth over time, but really the combination of longer periods of stability that are punctuated by dramatic shifts and changes, in this case of genetic change and adaptation. When evolution occurs, it is focused on rather rare and rapid events -- proven by the fossil record…

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